Taking on a business leadership role is both exciting and challenging. One of the most thrilling executive experiences is seeing a business idea take-off. Whether your objective is start-up, growth, recovery or mergers and acquisitions, you’ll need a compelling plan to reach your goals. Here are my ten tips on creating and delivering a successful corporate strategy.
1. Hit the road!
It’s vital to tune into the big picture as early as possible. In my first few weeks as CEO at ABE I spent little time in the office. I visited customers, end-users, regulators, suppliers and stakeholders to understand their needs and motivations. Most new leaders approach an assignment with strong ideas in place, but it’s important to road-test your ideas as soon as possible. Find out what customers really like about your company, what keeps them awake at night and what they’d like to change more generally about how they operate, this will go a long way to helping you create a compelling value proposition.
2. Challenge the ‘dominant logic’
Businesses often get stuck in a certain way of doing things, and settle for the status-quo. When you’re fresh in a new role this is a perfect time to be hyper-curious and ask probing questions. Your aim should be perfecting every fundamental of the business and this usually involves making changes, perhaps even uncomfortable or unpopular moves. When Dan Birnbaum took over as CEO at Soda-Stream, a company which boasted more than 95% share of the declining ‘home carbonation market’, he shocked the company out of its comfort zone by announcing that its target market was instead the entire fizzy drinks market and that its competitors were now Pepsi and Coca-Cola. It now had less than 0.5% share of its target market! Soda-Stream would have to rebuild its market from the bottom and think very differently about how to do this. Such changes can seem daunting. Shortly after joining ABE I invited a member of the British Paralympic ski team, who had overcome severe life-changing injuries, to talk to all ABE staff, sharing his personal insights about challenging pre-conceptions and pushing through barriers. New leaders should challenge their business to think differently if they want it to evolve.
3. Be a time traveller
Business leaders need to be able to see further into the future than most. In your new role you’ll need to shuttle effortlessly between the present and various possible futures. I typically spend between 30% - 50% of my time thinking about the long term, scanning my networks and tapping into diverse sources of information. I believe that the next big change in the industry will likely come from outside it, rather than within. This helps in sensing changes and opportunities that are upstream, but beware, too much future-gazing can be dangerous if you lose sight of the challenges in the here and now. Your staff need to know that your head is in the game today but that you have a vision of how the market will play out. But spend too much time on the nuts and bolts holding today’s business together and you will end up walking backwards into the future. Find your balance, don’t lose sight of the small things today but make sure that they crescendo towards the big impact you want to deliver.
4. Control the controllables
Many plans fail because they dwell too much on the aspirational or count on things which are often hard to predict or which are beyond your control. Think carefully about what actual levers are available to you in the business cockpit. These are aspects of the business that you can directly change or influence, such as costs or where the business focuses its resources, and start with influencing how you optimise those.
5. Create a burning imperative
You will need to galvanise the business around a shared goal or common enemy. This is the mission that unites everyone in the short term to reach the long-term goal. It’s useful to find a message that acts as a shared internal shorthand which clarifies the challenge and acts as a touchstone for decision making. Fuji wanted to grow its share of the camera film market and so staffers used to rally around the burning imperative of ‘Kill Kodak!’ as they sought to direct all of their efforts at undermining that one major competitor. Every small decision about manufacturing, logistics, and sales was washed the question, ‘is this better, cheaper, faster or smarter than the competitor?’ Knowing what to focus on day-to-day is just as important as knowing where you want to end up.
6. Act with speed and conviction
Often, change programmes fail because they get dragged out too long, or leaders wait to have near 100% certainty that it’s the right course of action. Once you’ve plotted your course, don’t waste time – go full steam ahead! A wrong decision is usually better than no decision at all which can paralyse an organisation creating more problems. Do not invest too much energy on being liked or protecting teams from painful decisions, and back your own instincts.
7. Make your motive crystal clear
Once you’ve completed your analysis and decided on your strategy, communication is vital. Everyone should have access to the business’ strategic plan, and understand the role they will play in delivering it. Just as importantly, staff should understand the rationale and motivations underpinning your plan. Why do you want to move into a new market? Why are you changing your product line-up? Why are you focusing on costs? Understanding the reason behind a plan will make it much easier for people to ‘live it’.
8. Be obsessed with outcomes
One of my favourite quotes from Winston Churchill is “No matter how beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results”. He was talking about the tendency for many people to see planning as an end in itself. For your plan to succeed you’ll need an unrelenting focus on delivering business results. It’s critical to have good data dashboards, clear lines of accountability for people to own targets and regular quantitative reporting. Establish key performance indicators early on and line-up regular business reviews for tracking performance.
9. Step back and let staff deliver
Now that you have a clear plan based on things that your business can control, and that has been communicated effectively, you must now stand back and let your teams deliver. It’s my view that authority should usually be placed at the lowest level possible. This means trusting staff to act decisively and giving them the support they need to be successful.
10. Get ready to improvise
By now, your powers of analysis and forecasting will be pretty sharp. But there’s a phrase used in the military; “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” This means that no matter how robust your planning, there will always be significant challenges to overcome. Reaching your stated objective is always the mission, but be prepared to think creatively about how you get there based on real-time feedback from the market. If you need to change your approach, don’t delay!
Remember that leading a business, a division or a team is a difficult and complex challenge, especially with so much disruption in the modern marketplace, which is why so many big companies or bright ideas can often fail. ABE Qualifications don’t just give you essential business skills, they will also help you to develop critical business instincts, ensuring that you are fully prepared to rise to the challenge and enjoy a successful career in leadership.